In summer 2001 I decided that, having honed my football conversation skills to the enésimo degree, it was about time I got myself an actual team to support. There were three, no wait four, reasons why I, although I was living in Lisbon at the time, didn’t want to choose a Portuguese team:
1)I happened to be holidaying in Spain at the time, and I had decided to Teach Myself Spanish Through Football.
2)Like, in my humble non-fish-or-seafood-eating opinion, Portuguese food, consisting as it often does in either Fish-&-Potatoes-&-Lettuce Combination or Meat-Fried Egg-&-Chips Combination, Portuguese football is Not Up To Much.
3)I am a contrary bastard.
4)It was clear to me that Real Madrid’s policy of buying up the world’s greatest players was going to be a disaster, and that what would follow would make quite an entertaining soap opera.
Why did I think this? Well, even someone as unkeen on sports as me could understand that a team is more than a collection of superstars. Even the most elementary knowledge of group dynamics can tell you that unless there is some team spirit and fellow feeling amongst the players, the group will not succeed.
As if to back this up, my copy of Marca told me that this, now my, new all-singing all-dancing superteam had just drawn their first match of the new era, with a team from Egypt, which is probably at the end of the day, Brian, one of those countries where it’s just too hot and possibly too interesting to waste time and energy playing football.
Another reason, and I will have to briefly revert to technical football language here, was that their defence was rubbish.
El tiempo pasó, and I watched proudly from afar as their policy of buying up the world’s most sought-after soon-to-be-past-their-prime players, while systematically getting rid of any good defenders, curiously failed to bear fruit. Any good defenders, that is, apart from Michel Salgado, presumably because Florentino Perez (a man who evidently knows and cares even less about football than I do, and who was re-elected President with a huge majority last year) didn’t want to get the shit kicked out of him. They resorted to fielding what were basically little more than local kids who, it was clear to me, had never played football in front of more than 200 people before. One of them, Ruben, was cruelly substituted 26 minutes into his debut, which they were already losing three-nil; he responded by, quite understandably I felt, crying a little bit like a girl.
And since then all my predictions have come true – they haven’t won anything for two years, and stand no chance whatsoever of doing so this year, and it is obvious that the players cannot stand the sight of one another. And as for the analysis and criticism filling the pages of the Spanish and foreign press: I could have told you the same information in a cafe in San Sebastian in ten minutes in 2001.
I’m not in the least bit proud to say this, but it would be difficult to say the least for anyone to tell me anything about the last four years in the life of Real Madrid that I don’t already know. I have to consider myself something of an expert, which is a shame because at the same time my Spanish is only Quite Good, and the game of football remains as boring as ever. Other people know and care a hell of a lot more about the sport, however; how was I able to predict with such accuracy what would unfold?
The reason was, I think, because understanding the world of football requires very, very little intelligence. It stimulates very few of your comprehension skills, and talking about it demands very few leaps of imagination. This remains true despite all the detailed coverage and analysis in grown-up newspapers and all the wordy ramblings of Nick Hornby et al. Once you take a step back from boyish enthusiasm and submit it to a good hard look, all analysis of football is a futile intellectual exercise which reveals little we don’t already know about the world.
Today’s conclusion, then: Football – and here I’m talking about the thing we see on TV, not the game played on the beach, in the park or, while we’re at it, on a football field – is on the whole a sport followed by boring and notveryintelligent people, and choosing to dedicate your time to following it can make you a more boring and less intelligent person than you were before.
And neither is it a particularly effective way to learn Spanish.